Officials say that paint and paint dust is the primary source of lead in Montclair children who test high in lead levels.
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The number of Montclair children with reported high levels of lead in their system rose from 11 in 2017 to 16 in 2018. Thus far in 2019, the township Department of Health has managed 12 cases, with some being carryovers from 2018, said Susan Porteuse, Montclair’s health director and health officer.

While neighboring Newark is dealing with a water crisis with continued high levels of lead in its drinking water — even after giving out 40,000 water filters to residents last year — lead paint, not water, is the leading culprit to the higher levels of lead in some of Montclair’s children, said Porteuse. 

Although no level of lead in drinking water is considered “safe,” the Environmental Protection Agency has set a national safety standard of 15 parts per billion or less. The township’s 2018 water quality report, recently sent to homes, reported lead levels at acceptable standards. 

“It is impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused the lead poisoning [in Montclair’s cases],” Porteuse said. “However, most lead exposure in Montclair occurs due to leaded paint/paint dust in the home. Some of our investigations led to identification of lead found in products such as imported spices.”

PolicyMap.com, a data miner of demographics, real estate, health, jobs and more in communities across the U.S., rated Montclair’s lead exposure risk at a 7 out of 10, with 10 being the highest risk, based on poverty levels and age of housing stock using 2010 Census data. 

The town purchases about 5.7 million gallons of water per day from the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission. The town’s water bureau then handles the water delivery service and infrastructure throughout town, and to homes and businesses.

In the early 2000s, the township did a complete overhaul of its water system infrastructure and completed a lead mains changeout project, said Gary Obszarny, director of the Montclair Water Bureau. In addition, according to water department records, the township has no lead services from the main to the curb.

“No water mains are lead,” Obszarny said. “They are ductile and cast iron.”

Over the years, most towns who run their own water companies, and water commissions servicing towns, have replaced the mains and leads to the curbs on the public side. But laterals — pipes from the curb to the home — fall under the responsibility of homeowners in Montclair and throughout New Jersey. In towns with older homes, the laterals have been blamed for high levels of lead in water in some areas. Water pipes laid prior to 1985 were fused with lead solder. 

Over the summer, the SUEZ Water New Jersey Hackensack conducted a campaign in which homeowners with laterals that contained lead were notified. Bergen and Hudson County residents could sign up for free water testing. Homeowners’s results were sent by mail, and those who tested high, were provided with Brita water pitchers. 

In Montclair, homeowners were notified if they had lead laterals in the early 2000s, but the town didn’t track if homeowners replaced them, Obszarny said.

Recently, the water bureau tested 60 homes labeled as “Tier 1 homes,” a designation indicating that the home has lead pipes on the homeowner side. Ninety percent of those homes tested below the threshold for the lead level of 15 parts per billion, said Obszarny. He would not say what spurred the testing, or if the town will continue to test homes with suspected lead laterals.

However, the Lead and Copper Rule, part of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, requires towns to test for lead in the water every three years, with a sample of 10 percent of residences. 

Replacing lateral lines can be costly for the homeowner, roughly between $3,000 and $8,000 per home. SUEZ had proposed a program for homeowners in April at $1,000 per a home, but that program was nixed in mid-summer due to funding cuts.

In Bloomfield, where test results last year showed high lead levels in its water in some homes, the town has been offering residents free lead-testing kits and PUR water filters on request. Tests revealed 16 out of 61 homes showed elevated levels of lead in the water, with the laterals being blamed. 

Montclair does not offer free water testing. Residents can take their own samples and send to several local labs for $40.

CASES OF LEAD

Children are required to be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2, typically being screened in their pediatrician’s office. If an elevated lead level is detected, the physician is required to report it to the local health department. Some parents have their children tested due to concerns with lead exposure through paint or water in older homes, said Portuese.

It can take several months, or longer, for blood lead levels to come down to an acceptable level, and for environmental abatement to be completed, so cases remain open until that happens. The child continues to be seen and treated by his or her pediatrician during this process and the board of health continues to monitor the case. The health department currently has only five open cases.

The number of children getting tested, however, remains low in Montclair. The state reported that 34 percent of Montclair’s children were tested in 2016, with a slight rise to 35.4 percent in 2017.

MONTCLAIR’S PROGRAM

There’s a lower threshold for children whose blood tests positive for lead. Regulations now require intervention when levels of lead detected in a child is 5 micrograms rather than the federal standard of 10 micrograms. 

Once a child with elevated blood lead levels is identified, Montclair Health Department nurses visit the family for case management. They follow the child’s medical care, and make recommendations regarding proper nutrition, which is important in helping bring down lead levels.

They also survey parents to determine possible sources of lead exposure, and maintain contact with the parents until the blood lead levels have reached acceptable levels. 

“At prescribed blood lead levels, our registered environmental health specialists also conduct an inspection of the home with a lead analyzer to determine the source of exposure,” Portuese said. “If it is paint in the home, the owner must hire a certified lead abatement contractor to remove chipping and peeling paint that has been identified to contain lead. Other potential sources of exposure are removed from the home.”

The town now has two state-of-the-art lead analyzers, one for painted surfaces and one for product testing.

The rise in the number of Montclair children reported to have high levels of lead between 2017 and 2018 could be attributed to the federal government’s reduction in the allowable blood lead levels in children in 2018, from 10 micrograms per deciliter to five. 

WHERE LEAD COMES FROM

Lead paint is the main source of lead exposure in children. Montclair has seen some cases linked to spices as well.

Older homes were often painted using lead-based paint, which was banned in the 1970s. If the paint is not maintained properly, or owners try to do renovations in their home without taking precautions to properly control paint dust and debris, children can be exposed to chipping, peeling or paint dust, Portuese said.

“It is ingested or inhaled and gets into their bloodstream, causing lead poisoning,” she added. Other sources of lead include imported pottery or toys, spices, cosmetics, ceramics and in some hobby items, like stained glass and fishing sinkers.

The health department will hold two clinics to test possible leaded products on Tuesday, Sept. 17 and Tuesday, Sept. 24 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

During the 2016-2017 school year, the district conducted lead tests in all water sources in the school and administration buildings, including 220 water fountains in the 11 schools, the administration building, the Montclair Community Pre-K and the fieldhouse at Woodman Field. 

Of the 220 fountains, 12 — eight at the high school, one each in Watchung and Hillside, and two in the Woodman fieldhouse — were taken out of service because of traces of lead in water samples. 

Homeowners with older water laterals are advised to get their water tested, and to use water filters specifically geared toward removing lead, Portuese said.

Homeowners with lead pipes or lead solder in their leads/laterals can reduce the amount of lead in water by flushing it — letting the water run for several minutes or until it runs cold, before using for drinking or cooking purposes.